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The Great Escape of film stars and crew

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Capt. Emil Jayawardena with his Dakota

Capt. Elmo Jayawardena
Elmojay1@gmail.com

Prologue

“The Incredible Rescue” is a true story. It was written by the co-pilot of the flight, Capt Shelton Goonewardena. He is 97 years old today and lives in Marawila. ‘Sinhabahu’ and ‘Terry’ in the story is him. Capt Emil Jayawardena was my father and off and on I heard this Madras story. Mr John Vethavanam was the Radio Officer (father of Capt Duleep Vethavanam.) Miss Cynthia Phillips was the flight Stewardess.In my humble opinion this really was an incredibly crazy operation planned and flown by Capt Emil and his crew.

Yes, some would say they broke every rule in the book. Who am I to judge? The scales of justice at times have to be tempered with mercy and kindness and a whole lot of madness. There were 17 film people who boarded the plane on the taxiway close to the end of runway 25. Among them was B A W and Eddie Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi. Someone even brought along the dog from the Minerva House.The rest of the story is here in Capt Shelton’s own words.

THE INCREDIBLE RESCUE

The pioneers of SRI LANKA’s Sinhala cinema were the MINERVA Players.They turned their very popular stage plays such as Broken Promise (Kadunu Poronduwa) into very successful films. There being no filming studios locally, they went lock, stock and barrel to Madras to do the needful.At Madras, they ran house with typical Sinhala, Negombo hospitality traditions. It was Open House all the time, night and day, for all and sundry irrespective of nationality, social status, caste or religion.

There was always plenty to eat and drink with real Sinhala cuisine. The undisputed Godfather of the setup was BAW, a person of very serious disposition and a workaholic. He directed all the plays and films and everything else that went on at the Minerva household.

BAW was ably assisted by his brother, Eddie, a genius at comedy and his beautiful singing wife, Daisy (Rukmini Devi) who were the leading actors. There were also a host of others, all highly talented actors such as Josie and Joe. All the stage hands, helpers, cooks and the lot were natives from Negombo, so they made one big happy family at the Minerva house in Madras.

When not filming it was jollification from dawn to dawn and a good time was had by all. The Minerva players travelled often to and from Sri Lanka, always on Air Ceylon, hence everybody at the Airports, including Air Traffic Control Officers, Customs, Immigration Officers, Doctors, Traffic Assistants and the lot became their bosom friends, who were often invited to the Minerva house for parties and celebrations, of which there was never a shortage.

The Minerva house Sri Lankan hospitality became legendary in Madras.Sri Lanka’s Governor General and many high dignitaries when visiting Madras were all welcomed guests at the Minerva house, where they received right royal treatment.

Air Ceylon operated a fleet of four DC 3 Dakotas with a daily night stop at Madras. The Air Ceylon air crew were always put up at the poshest hotels wherever they went. At Madras it was the Connemara or Victoria hotels. However, Captain Emil Jayawardena, a World War two RAF veteran pilot, although used to all the best trimmings of high society, preferred the simple Sinhala home comforts and so he always night stopped at the Minerva house.

Having had his training in the RAF traditions, his discipline and airmanship had no equal. As a person, his personality was such he had a phenomenal ability of making friends and influencing people. His level of compassion once spurred him to fly the Air Ceylon DC 3 Dakota at sea level manually, with a full load of passengers from Madras to Ratmalana to try and save the life of a sick and dying child passenger.

All the Area Controls and Control Towers played ball, such was his popularity with the aviation fraternity.However much he indulged the night before he was always there on time early morning, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for duty, personally doing the pre-flight checks himself. He saw to it that everybody else was in similar vein, otherwise there was hell to pay. Even every brass button on the uniform had to be polished and shining. As Senior Training Captain, all were on their toes when he was around.

Captain Emil showed a special interest and took under his wing Terry, a greenhorn First Officer who had just graduated from the Air Academy and was the newest recruit to the Airline. They flew together a lot, with Captain Emil teaching the youngster all the tricks of the trade and its finer points. In fact, after that memorable flight at sea level from Madras to Ratmalana, he even showed him how to fudge the flight log.

Captain Emil confessed that during his RAF war days, some crews did not know for certain where they had dropped their bombs, because most of the bombings were done at night amid heavy enemy fire; hence altering course all the time was normal. It was from the next days morning newspaper that they learnt where the bombs had hit and so they fudged the flight logs to suit the news reports. Fudging the flight log was a normal part of the war game, said Captain Emil.

Captain Emil has such faith in Terry, he often left the cockpit in Terry’s care and went back to the cabin to have a chat with the passengers and friends of whom he had plenty. However, he always made sure that the Radio Officer stayed in the cockpit keeping a lookout for other aircraft in the vicinity.

On one such occasion, he stormed back into the cockpit and demanded of Terry “where the hell are you farting about all over the sky?” Captain Emil could detect the slightest change of attitude of the aircraft. “I changed course ever so gently to avoid those CBs over there” explained Terry, pointing to a bank of Cumulo Nimbus clouds straight ahead in the distance.

“You bloody idiot, we are still at Puttalam and that weather front is beyond Mannar. It will be gone by the time we get there. Get back on course” he ordered Terry and left the cockpit. That day Terry learnt a new lesson in airmanship, that clouds do not stay put. That’s how Captain Emil taught his juniors. Straight off the cuff and to the point.

Terry was a village lad and even though now he moved in high society, he preferred Sinhala village home comforts and so, whenever he night stopped at Madras, he stayed in the Minerva house, where he was considered one of the family. Terry could even talk and act like Eddie, which was a unique style. One day, Captain Emil decided to night stop at Victoria hotel instead of Minerva house and Terry went along too. This surprised Terry.

Very early in the morning, as usual Mr. Nathan came to the Victoria Hotel, in the company Ford Prefect which he drove himself, picked up Captain Emil, Terry, John Vethavanam the Radio Officer and Cynthia the hostess and dropped them all off at the Madras Airport, after which he had a chat with Captain Emil and drove off.

This was most unusual as Mr. Nathan, a most conscientious person, always stayed on supervising all that went on till after take off. In fact, he always stood to attention, because of his military background, and saluted the Captain before taxiing out.

Capt. Elmo with Capt. Shelton

It was customary for the First Officer to go to the Control Tower for flight clearance and Met briefing. But on this occasion, Captain Emil volunteered to do the needful and asked Terry to see to all the pre-flight ground checks. Terry observed that there was an unusually large amount of baggage. The baggage compartments at the rear and up front were chock-a-block to bursting point and Mr. Magasalingham, who was the Air India Ground Engineer at Madras seeing to the requirements of the Air Ceylon DC 3s, when on night stop, and was a regular and honoured guest at the Minerva house, had them fastened down.

Terry also noticed that to keep within the all up weight, less fuel was being uplifted. The flight from Madras to KKS was one and a half hours and the fuel on board was sufficient for just two hours. When Terry questioned Mr. Magasalingham about this, he very casually remarked “the weather is fine so not to worry” and side stepped the issue.

Most of the Airport Controllers and Air Traffic Officers were ex-war veterans who had plenty of war time exploits to tell each other and chat about, so when Captain Emil delayed to come back, Terry thought nothing of it.

On this day, however, Captain Emil had a longer than usual pow-wow with the Customs, immigration, Police and Medical officers at the Airport, as well as the Traffic Assistants. He had a particular long chat with Magasalingham.

All these persons and many more had at one time or other enjoyed the Sri Lankan hospitality at the Minerva house. On entering the cockpit, Captain Emil told Terry “you command this flight” and sat himself in the co-pilot’s seat. He then started getting flight clearance from the tower on RT, but not on the usual channel and frequency, with Vaitha’s assistance. They fiddled around for quite a while, to Terry’s amazement.

The two Air India traffic assistants, Mr. Nair and Joseph, who saw to the Air Ceylon passenger matters brought the passenger manifest to the Captain for signature. Terry noticed they had a full load that day.After settling down in the Captain’s seat, Terry and Captain Emil completed the cockpit check and waited for the ‘ALL CLEAR’ signal from Magasalingham, which wasn’t coming.

“What are you waiting for? Start the engines” inquiringly insisted Captain Emil.

“Magas has not given the ‘ALL CLEAR’ nor is the door closed” protested Terry, pointing to the door indicator light.

“To hell with the indicator light and Magas, start the engines. I am telling you” ordered Captain Emil. Terry did as he was told reluctantly. He sensed that something special was unfolding as normally Captain Emil was a stickler for rules and procedure.

In the meantime, Cynthia rushed into the cockpit in distress and lamented “Why have you started the engines? The door is not even closed. I am supposed to have a full load but only three passengers have boarded. Besides I have a galley full of food and what am I to do with all that? Have you all gone mad?” she inquired angrily.

“Don’t worry my dear, everything will be OK, you will see. Go back and wait”, assured Captain Emil. She went back protesting and muttering to herself. On passing Vethavanam, she remarked “You are also a party to this madness, aren’t you? It’s worse than a loony bin in here”. Captain Emil kept a constant chatter with the control tower which was unusual.

Finally, Magasalingham signaled the ALL CLEAR and chocks off.Taxi to runway 25 ordered Captain Emil and Terry did likewise. On entering the intersection near the end of runway 25 he was asked to stop, which he did.

Captain Emil and Vaitha left the cockpit and went back into the cabin and opened the door, put the aircraft retractable steps out and waited. Just then, Terry noticed Mr. Nathan in the Ford Prefect entering the tarmac and approaching the aircraft. He stopped at the open door.

Lo and behold, out jumped a whole lot of people from the car and boarded the plane. Mr. Nathan did this trip twice more, picking up persons, men and women from the terminal building and nobody at the airport seemed to mind, and just looked on.

After 17 passengers and a dog had boarded, Captain Emil and Vaitha closed the door, locked it, and returned to the cockpit. Captain Emil thanked the Airport Controller and everybody else for their help and co-operation on RT. He then turned to Terry and impishly said “OK Captain, scramble”. That was the first time Captain Emil addressed F.O. Terry as Captain. Not long after, Terry was promoted to Junior Captain.

The rest of the flight was like no other. It was singing, dancing and laughter all the way back. The auto pilot could not keep the aircraft straight and level, so it had to be flown all the way back manually, with Captain Emil and Terry taking turns.

In typical Sinhala hospitality traditions, Cynthia was served by the passengers rather than serving them, which cooled her off. The cabin was awash with Sri Lankan food which they had brought along.It was later on that everybody realized that the late arrivals were the Minerva Players and their retinue. First stop was KKS to a grand Jaffna welcome by Station Manager Mr. Reggiepillai, an officer and a gentleman. Everything was there, except the pandals. Mr. Reggiepillai and family had been very special guests at the Minerva house whenever they visited Madras and this was their ‘Thank you”.

The Customs Officers at KKS, Mr. Rasa and Basil and the Immigration Officers did the needful without fuss or bother. They knew the Minerva lot personally. From KKS to Ratmalana, it was no different except a bit noisier due to Jaffna toddy, and then it was straight back to Negombo for more celebrations and home comings for the Minerva Players and retinue.

The truth behind all these mysterious happening emerged later.

The Madras Filming Studios were holding the Minerva Players and their retinue to ransom due to outstanding payments. This had come about because they had overrun their budget for reasons beyond their control. These amounts could have been easily met from receipts after the films were screened but the studio was demanding immediate payments which meant that the Minerva Players would have had to sell up all their assets at home to meet these demands.

When this was revealed to Captain Emil when in night stop, he thought otherwise and planned this daring escape.

His national pride, compassion and determination, with the help of all those who had enjoyed the Sri Lankan hospitality at some time or another at the Minerva house, planned in secret this incredible rescue act which he pulled off with ease.

Mr. Nathan, Magasalingham and associates had smuggled out of the Minerva house the Minerva Players and retinue and housed them at the airport the previous night and completed all the embarkation requirements, ready for the morning flight which took them to freedom on Captain Emil’s plane.

This was the first time in the history of air travel that a plane load of persons was smuggled out of a country within the laws of that country. The shockwaves of this quake to the Sri Lankan film industry were felt far and wide.

It gave birth to the setting up of filming studios in Sri Lanka and its progress to date. It took the wonder of Sri Lankan unselfish hospitality, given to all and sundry, by an unspoilt, unsophisticated and innocent group of Sri Lankan actors in a foreign country, coupled with the determination and compassion of an unassuming Air Ceylon Captain and crew, together with the help and co-operation of all personnel at the Madras airport, to make this incredible rescue a reality. A truly combined international effort. Those who dare to help their neighbours in a just cause always win.

TISSA SINGHABAHU



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Features

Illegality of Urumaya programme

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President distributing land deeds in Galle recently

by Neville Ladduwahetty

The Urumaya Programme, aimed at resolving land ownership issues for over two million Sri Lankans, was officially launched on 5 February in Dambulla by Minister Harin Fernando. During the press briefing the Minister is reported to have stated: “The programme’s aim is to provide permanent land ownership solutions. Over 10,000 land licensees currently holding Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi licences will be among the first beneficiaries of this programme. These licenses will be converted into freehold deeds, granting them full ownership of their land. This move is expected to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of millions currently struggling with land ownership uncertainties” (news.lk).

Continuing he stated: “Our journey is far from over. Many of our citizens have lost homes, land, and their sense of security. To address this suffering, we have launched a special programme – “Urumaya” Through this initiative, we aim to bring about positive change for over two million people in Sri Lanka.    This involves granting freehold land deeds to those who currently hold licenses like Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi.     By empowering our people with ownership, we hope to spark a new era of stability and prosperity” (Ibid).

BACKGROUND to the URUMAYA PROGRAMME

“Delivering the 2024 Budget proposals, President Wickremesinghe unveiled the ‘Urumaya’ programme, wherein he noted that the land slots distributed among farmers under the licences of the Land Development Ordinance in 1935 would be handed back to farmers” (The Morning, February 18, 2024).

“Although around 100 years have passed, the ownership of these farmlands has not been handed back to the farmers who own them. We are handing over the lands to farmers who lost the ownership of their traditional lands during the British colonial era. We expect to commence this task in 2024 and complete it within another few years. Two million families will get the ownership of land and farmland. I allocate Rs. 2 billion for this purpose,” (Ibid).

VIOLATION of the CONSTITUTION

The granting of freehold land deeds to over two million people in Sri Lanka raises several constitutional issues. The most fundamental issue is whether the government has the authority to grant freehold titles to lands and its resources to some, while such authority belongs to the Republic of Sri Lanka and ALL its Peoples as an integral component of their sovereignty.

For instance, the Preamble to the Constitution, which some consider to be of little significance, while others consider it to be the very embodiment of the core values of the Constitution states: “The PEOPLE OF SRI LANKA having, by their Mandate freely expressed and granted …. entrusted and empowered their Representatives …to draft, adopt and operate a new Republican Constitution…whilst ratifying the immutable republican principles of REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, and assuring to all peoples FREEDOM, EQUALITY, JUSTICE, FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS…”.

Arising from these core principles, Article 3 states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable ….”  The fact that Sri Lanka is a Republic is what makes its assets part of the sovereignty of all the People.    Furthermore, since it is the PEOPLE of Sri Lanka that have “entrusted and empowered their Representatives to carry out functions on their behalf, such Representatives do not have the right to grant part of the People’s sovereign rights and/or its resources that are inalienable, to a select few. However, it is imperative that a strategy is developed to address the issue at hand without violating provisions of the Constitution.

OPINION of the SUPREME COURT
SUPREME COURT JUDGMENTS RELATING to LAND
S.C. 884/99 BULANKULAMA AND OTHERS v. SECRETARY, MINISTRY OFINDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AND OTHERS (EPPAWALA CASE AMERASINGHE. J.

Jurisdiction

“The Constitution declares that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. (Article 3).   Being a representative democracy, the powers of the People are exercised through persons who are for the time being entrusted with certain functions. The Constitution states that the legislative power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament, the executive power of the People shall be exercised by the President of Sri Lanka, and the judicial power of the People shall be exercised, inter alia, through the Courts created and established by the Constitution (Article 4)”.

“The organs of State are guardians to whom the people have committed the care and preservation of the resources of the people. This accords not only with the scheme of government set out in the Constitution but also with the high and enlightened conceptions of the duties of our rulers, in the efficient management of resources in the process of development, which the Mahavamsa, 68.8-13, set forth”.

Other Lordships of the Supreme Court have also commented on the fact that certain Constitutional procedures need to be followed when granting or disposing of State Lands or other resources that belong to the People in the Republic.    It is the unilateral action taken under the Urumaya Programme without following due process as called for in the Constitution, that makes this Program illegal.

A “Brief Guide on Land Rights in Sri Lanka” states:

“State Land is alienated: • By Permit • By Grant • By the President

“State land is all land that the State is lawfully entitled to, or land which may be disposed of by the State together with any building standing thereon, and with all rights, interests and privileges attached thereto. This also includes lands of various Corporations and Boards. State land is administered at national, provincial, district and divisional levels by the relevant government officials” (Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014).

By Permit:

“Permits are issued to particular categories specified in the relevant laws such as low-income earners and those who are landless.   Permit holders can use the land as specified in the permit including as a residence and/or for cultivation purposes.     Permit holders are required to pay a nominal monthly rental to the State. Permits can be issued as an annual permit or also known as ‘LDO permit’ when issued under the Land Development Ordinance” (Ibid).

By Grant

“(Swarnabhoomi, Jayabhoomi, R a n a b h o o m i, Ranbima – Permit-holders can convert their permit into a grant or a deed, if they meet specific conditions” (Ibid).

By the President

“The President can grant or lease State land at a nominal price or rent it for charitable, educational, religious, scientific or any other purpose” (Ibid).

Therefore, according to the “Brief Guide” State Land cannot be converted to freehold deeds that grant them full ownership of their land under the Urumaya Program without conforming to the above guidelines.

Since State-Owned Enterprises also form part of the sovereignty of the People, the intended proposal to privatise them, also faces the same restrictions. It is reported that the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters have in a letter addressed to the President appealed to him to exercise caution about the sale of national assets such as state-owned enterprises” (The Sunday Times, 18 February, 2024).

PROPOSED STRATEGY

The reason for granting freehold deeds is to enable current Permit holders to use the asset as collateral to raise a loan since existing provisions cited above are considered too restrictive.     Therefore, it is pertinent to consider what the existing restrictions are and consider what refinements could be made to existing provisions in order to mitigate the administrative impediments as much as possible while conforming to Constitutional provisions.

The strategy adopted by current Permit holders of State-Owned Assets is to form themselves into a Cooperative. Each member of the Cooperative pays a monthly stipend.  These are forwarded monthly by each Corporative to the Development Co-Op Society for use by its members to secure loans relating to Paribooga Loan (livelihood) and/or Housing Loan.  The process involved to secure a loan is quite rigorous and involves an evaluation of the capability of the member to honour required loan commitments by the Grama Niladhari and members of the Development Co-Op Society. This procedure has enabled members of the Cooperatives to secure loans in the range of Rs. 800,000/= to one million.

The granting of freehold title to current Permit holders, amounts to converting State land on which the asset is cited into Private land. This is a violation of the collective sovereignty of the People. Therefore, existing provisions granted to Permit holders should be revised in a manner where the Permit has a legitimacy equivalent to a title deed for all administrative purposes, except for the land on which the asset is cited.

Furthermore, if Permit holders are entitled to nominate a beneficiary, the interests of the original Permit holder would continue as it would be if the asset has a freehold title. If on the other hand, the original Permit holder did not have a beneficiary of choice, the asset would revert back to the State.    Such possibilities should be explored with caution instead of rushing to grant title deeds to People that may have the potential to disappoint them if they find that the deeds they received are not legal.

 CONCLUSION

The intention of the President to correct an injustice by handing back traditional lands belonging to farmers that were taken over 100 years ago during British Colonial Rule, is indeed noteworthy.  However, there is a need to be conscious of the present context. That context is that Sri Lanka is a Republic and Article 3 of the Constitution states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable”. That being the case, Sri Lanka’s lands, its assets and resources belong to the People. Furthermore, since nearly all Sri Lankans have endured injustices of one kind or another, it is Illegal to correct the injustices committed against some, at the expense of the rest. This is what the Urumaya Programme is all about.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the part of the President and others associated with the Urumaya Program to act cautiously and revisit the legality of the Urumaya Programme before it is too late. If they proceed regardless, there is a strong possibility that beneficiaries of the Urumaya Programme may have to face disappointment later if it is found to be illegal. A similar note of caution has been issued by the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters regarding State-Owned Enterprises.

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Features

Among the Trobrianders: A Personal Journey

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Royal Thomian. March 2023

By Uditha Devapriya

You are putting me in a hole.
No, I am taking you out of it!

Somewhere in 2016, I lost my first job.I had been working at my old school for two months, and had been led to assume that I would be retained to help them draft a communications policy. I was into PR, had hopes of entering advertising, and was looking for a suitable opening.

All of a sudden, I was told they didn’t need such a person.

I was 23 at the time. I had just completed law school and was waiting for my results.

It was not the best time to be idle. I needed a job.

And now, I was out of one.

I tried contacting friends and acquaintances, clinging to any mutual contact I could find.

None of it worked.

Frantically, I fired off one email after another.

I may have sent tens if not hundreds of emails. Many replied, and some asked me to come over to be interviewed. The interviews, however, all left a bad taste in my mouth. The jobs they had either paid too low or were outside my comfort zone.

Then an ad agency, one of many agencies I had emailed, got in touch. They scheduled an interview in December. There they said they wanted someone with “zero experience in advertising.” They thought I fitted the bill. They took me in.

By now I was freelancing to several newspapers in the country. I was writing on the arts, reviewing films, plays, the occasional exhibition. The pay wasn’t good, but the exposure was: it got me in touch with artists, directors, writers, dancers.

I had always been mad about culture and the arts. At school I had inclined to subjects like history and literature. Though I did not study them for my Advanced Levels – I chose Commerce, a “safer” stream, instead – I did not abandon them. I pursued such fields as a writer and a journalist after leaving school.

There was a problem, however. For more than a decade I had studied mostly in English, and had become ignorant of my language and culture. I came from a Sinhala speaking background, but since I spent six hours at school, two getting back home, and around five or six active hours at home, this did not amount to much.

In my time, the rage everywhere in the country was for English, Western, private education. Our parents had studied in the vernacular: Sinhala or Tamil. Yet after leaving school they had felt it would be better to have their children taught in English.

Public schools used to have English medium classes, but by the time I was born these had been abandoned. As a result, a new type of school had cropped up, catering to an ever-growing demand for English education.

The problem was that while we readily immersed ourselves in English education, many of us allowed ourselves to neglect our languages. Though our parents were concerned about what was happening to us and nationalist groups bemoaned what this was doing to our country and culture, there was little anyone could do about it. It did not help that in the classroom, we were tacitly discouraged from talking in Sinhala and Tamil.

June 2022

The result was that most of us came out knowing next to nothing about our language, religion, culture, society, even our people. I was no exception. Westernised, though in a half-baked way, I could not relate to the world I had been born to.

Lester James Peries recalled undergoing a similar experience at his school.

Some of us became snobs. Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly.

So did Osmund Jayaratne.

If, instead of Latin, we had been given a good grounding of our native tongue, Sinhala, I would have been very happy, but unfortunately this was not to be.

And so did Gamani Corea.
[F]or my generation, the lapse [in Sinhala] was a serious one and a handicap for later life.

These were sentiments I could relate to.

A few months after I began my job, I realized that things would only get worse. I may have been writing to newspapers on local art and culture, but I was writing in English, thinking in English, operating in English, living and breathing English.

My new workplace made me more conscious of these deficiencies. A good copywriter tends to be rooted in his surroundings. He or she tends to be bicultural, if not bilingual, and finds it easy to operate in both English and the vernacular.

My problem was that I was far from being bicultural, in any sense.

It was a hole I needed to get out of, and fast.

My coworkers had, in their own way, stepped in and helped me improve somewhat. Yet they were too busy. I realized I could expect only so much from them.

Someone else had to step in. Someone from outside.

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Freelancing has its advantages and privileges. You aren’t constrained by deadlines, and you are free to write what you want to write. You get to associate with people who relate to you. You get to write on them. Often you get to learn from them.

One night in 2017, the Secretary of a school society called me. The society, the Library Readers’ Association, the oldest student-led association at the school, was organizing an exhibition-cum-quiz. They wanted a judge for the quiz, and an article written on the event. Since I had been a quizzer and was a writer, I seemed to fit the bill.

I duly served as judge, and the article, which the boys fortunately liked, duly got published. In Sri Lanka, however, events never really end: they lead to other events. Soon I was getting requests from them to write on other societies and clubs, including sports events. These were not typical press release articles, but full-length human-interest essays, different from the journalistic pieces that get written about such events.

It was then that I realised that most of these boys came from a world completely different to the world I had grown up in. Though they attended what was seen as the leading public school in the island, Royal College, they had entered it through the Grade Five Scholarship, and had been boarded at the school Hostel.

Hailing from villages that lay far away from Colombo – you had to fulfil a distance threshold to be boarded at the Hostel – they represented an antithesis of my personality. They had lived their entire childhood at home. As I talked with them, they regaled me with stories of the culture shock they underwent after they moved to Colombo.

At first our parents were worried. Would we grow up away from them?

The first English song I ever heard was our school anthem.

Some classmates mocked me, they made fun of the way I talked.

Becoming the butt-end of jokes, they adapted by either suppressing their identity or, in the more likely scenario, insulting the insulters.

In our first two years, we mocked those who spoke only in English in our classrooms.

They seemed too nerdy, too polite. They were like babies.

That, however, only heightened their fear of the language.

Of course, we were afraid of English. Some of us avoided it, others tried to master it. A few pretended it wasn’t important until it was too late.

Sri Lanka may be a small island, but it is home to an incredible range of cultures and subcultures. There is nothing monolithic about any of them.

A colourful bunch, these boys came from practically every corner of the country. In the way they talked, behaved, the way they interacted with outsiders and with me, they differed from one another. They were a microcosm of their country. Talking to them, I encountered the societies they hailed from, societies I had grown away from.

Slowly, but surely, our associations developed into friendships. As time went by, we realized that we looked at the world in different ways. Yet in one sense we were kindred spirits: we were all learning and absorbing a new culture.

For them, it was a process of discovery: living in a city, English, Western culture.

For me, it was a process of rediscovery: Sinhala language and literature, Buddhism.

In the end, we ended up teaching one another.

It was almost like Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders. The difference, of course, is that they were as much an exotic Other to me as I was to them.

And like Malinowski and the Trobrianders, there were points of disagreement, difference, and incompatibility between us, often too big to bridge.

I found their views on culture and society intriguing. Yet beyond a point, perhaps because of my cultural conditioning, I found it hard to accept them. As an agnostic, for instance, I couldn’t relate to their religious beliefs, particularly their belief in the supernatural. Still, they expressed such sentiments with a lot of conviction.

Gods do exist.

When we feel them, we believe in them, we give them power.

Come over one day, I will show them to you.

If this is one of the more insightful comments on God-worship in Sri Lanka, or anywhere, I have come across – the notion that it is our belief in them that gives them power – it’s because it was said by someone who spoke his mind, someone who responded instinctively to such matters without intellectual obfuscations.

In other words, these boys weren’t just teaching and guiding me. They were immersing me in their moral code, their cultural universe. It was not exactly an encounter between two worlds. But it was an encounter between two ways of looking at the world.

To be sure, I still have not got out of my cocoon. I am still ignorant of cultural matters. I still make gaffes. There are times when I feel like a foreigner in my country.

Yet, largely through the intervention of these boys, I have acquired a decent understanding about things I was unaware of.

———————————–

Late last December, describing my attempts at introducing him to sociologists and historians and at getting him to talk to them, one of these boys expostulated:

You are putting me in a hole.

To which I replied:

No, I am taking you out of it!

Life ultimately amounts to the people we meet and the friendships we form.

It is about what we do for one another, the lengths we go for others.

It is about teaching new things and learning new things.

Or, as my friend put it, about falling into holes and getting out of them.

Like what these boys did for me – and like what I like to think I did for them.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He can be reached at .

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Tea Library Hikkaduwa comes alive

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The Tea Library was opened recently in the heart of Sri Lanka’s most popular beach and surfing town Hikkaduwa. This is another venture of tea industry veteran Malinga Herman Gunaratne best known for ‘white tea’ – probably the most exclusive tea ever produced in the world. The Tea Library adds a new dimension to Hikkaduwa with its three story terracotta exterior and welcoming interiors.

It offers accommodation, a restaurant and a tea shop. The third floor which provides spectacular views of the beach and the Hikkaduwa town, features a mural covering the highlights of Herman Gunaratne’s life in the tea industry by artist Chandana Samarakoon. Architect Shayam Kumaradas has transformed this once derelict building into one of multiple uses and chic interiors. It features hand painted Mandalas by artist Maneesha Sewwandi on the walls of the bedrooms.

Opening times of Tea Library are 9 am – 10 pm daily and you can have an exclusive group tea tasting experience, or use the stunning upstairs restaurant space for events such as book launches.

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